Are you planning on, or still hesitating about going on an Erasmus + exchange? Let us tell you why you should take the plunge!
By Sabrina Ammad, Anaïs Gonzalez Detraz, Antonin Lennes and Sarah Tondeur
Just as MC2L students wrote about their Erasmus + and MICEFA experiences last year, four second year masters’ students will tell you their personal stories about the semester they spent abroad during the 2015-2016 school year. Sarah lived la Dolce Vita in Milan and Brescia, Sabrina discovered a fascinating multicultural London, and Antonin and Anaïs delved into Southampton’s impressive diversity.
How did you experience the preparations (administration, expenses, accommodation) and setting foot in your host city?
Sarah: Erasmus mobility appeared to be an opportunity to live abroad and to experience another culture and lifestyle. I was afraid of this entirely new reality: How would I understand and be understood? Would I be able to manage my expenses? How would I find a home? Would I meet people? Nevertheless, I discovered that these fears are common reactions that vanished quickly upon my arrival.
French University is really helpful: the Erasmus+ programme provides you with a grant to cover a proportion of your expenses. There is also the AMI grant (Aide à la Mobilité Internationale), and each French Regional Council sets up a regional support for students who go abroad: Paris offers the AMIE grant for instance. The University of Paris 8 is very supportive. Once I arrived at the University of Milan, I did not encountered any problem with procedures because everything was online: fast and easy.
Finding accommodation in Italy is fairly stressful because contracts are different and landlords can be underhand when dealing with foreigners. My piece of advice is to always ask for official and signed documents. The best way to find a home is to go to a youth hostel a week before starting university and to take the time to look for a room.
Sabrina: I was a student at University College London (UCL). It is very effective administratively speaking. While it takes months to finally be a student in Paris, it takes five minutes in London. You just need to do everything online before arriving, and then come to UCL with your acceptance letter and ID to finalise your registration. All of this works well if UCL knows that you have been nominated by Paris 8, so do make sure that you don’t lose track of the application you submit to SERCI.
Anaïs: In spite of the grants mentioned by Sarah, going on an Erasmus exchange in the UK still requires financial security and valuable advice from your banker. The greatest expense I made was dedicated to the house I shared with Antonin and two other roommates. We were very lucky to find accommodation on the day following our arrival when exploring one of the main real estate agencies streets. However, we had to pay three months’ rent in addition to a deposit and agency fees on account of our non-existent English guarantors. The bus service is important for being able to move around Southampton. Unfortunately not all of the city bus services can be accessed with a single university bus pass. As students still haunted by Paris 13 metro line, we chose not to include public transportation in our budget and went on a pedestrian adventure.
How was life on campus and more generally in your new city?
Sabrina: Life in community is great. Everyone seems to have their own style, to be original and unique. You can see people wearing punk gothic outfits; people with blue, pink or green hair; Muslim women wearing hijabs, niqabs and burqas; orthodox Jews wearing kippas and curls… And they all belong there. People seem not to care if they do not look like a « regular Caucasian British ».
Sarah: Italian courses are particular and can be quite confusing for foreign students. Most of the exams are orals, called appelli. An appello is not structured at all: the day of the exam, students present themselves in the hall and wait for their turn. Once a student is called, the exam sounds like a conversation: the professor usually asks what the student understood from the course, what he/she appreciated, and makes him/her especially at ease. An appello has no defined duration. It can last twenty minutes as one hour. During classes, Italian students participate actively and usually take part in debates. I appreciated this point because the course was evolving through students’ ideas and reflections.
During the first days, I was welcomed by the Erasmus association. The Erasmus Student Network is well spread out around Italy and deeply linked to the Universities. The ESN members organised a Welcome Day for all Erasmus students by hosting us in the most stunning hall of the main building. After showing us the city and the society, they offered students a programme of visits, trips and parties, which attracted many people! They also offered students a buffet so people could meet and talk comfortably in a friendly environment.
Sabrina: The concept of seminars within the British educational system is a wonder. The professor asks a question and for an hour or two, the students try to answer it by talking together and by illustrating their arguments with their own experiences. They develop ideas together in such a way as to make the class interesting, agreeable and educational. You can learn a great deal when you take part in the building and structuring of a lesson. The professors intervene from time to time to interrogate a student so he/she develops an idea or participates in the discussion. The lecturers are also the ones giving us readings for the next class in order to help us exemplify our statements. They even explain with their own words and experience what we read. You can feel that there is a friendly understanding between both sides and a common will to learn.
Moreover, I joined the Yonce Appreciation Society (YAS), a society about Beyoncé. I joined it because there was an opportunity to become a media and communication officer rather than because I like the singer (who I really discovered through this activity). I got to meet more people, especially British individuals since, from what I gathered from my interviews, we, exchange students, tend to meet only other exchange students. I enjoyed that, I wanted to meet both. You should really not underestimate societies: in addition to fostering interactions with people, this society allowed me to find my internship back in France! Indeed, this experience as a media and communication officer was a good element on my resume, and that is precisely why my current company hired me.
Southampton University is divided into seven campuses but the ones we were sent to are Avenue (Humanities) and Highfield (main campus). When we first set foot in Highfield, I realised that one does not need to cross the Atlantic to explore vast campuses. Nevertheless, the quality of this place seems rather normal when locals spend £9,000 tuition fees each year, and international students £20,000 for the same degree. Highfield is a real microcosm. I could experience going to the market right after a lecture, spending an evening at the campus cinema, participate in a language exchange at the Bridge café, and even prove my talents as a singer during a karaoke night at the campus pub. Most of these activities and facilities exist thanks to Southampton University Student Union, better known as SUSU. SUSU hosts over 300 students societies. Regarding entertainment, Southampton is a great international city as further described by Antonin. Football fans enjoy St Mary’s stadium and its frenzied crowd while others can quench their thirst for culture in Highfield’s theatre, concert hall and art gallery. I also had the chance to visit the Sea City museum which holds an amazing permanent exhibition about the Titanic and her deadly journey. Erasmus+ can therefore be a fully rounded experience, designed to enable students to complete the skills and knowledge they have acquired at their home university.
Except from the huge lenghth difference between French and Brtish modules as noticed by Sabrina, I found similarities between MC2L Master’s Degree modules and the ones I attended during my stay. I had the chance to get familiar with different English accents, which was really helpful when facing a plethora of new students and professors. I was grateful to know what exactly an essay was, how to research content, and produce the mandatory corresponding bibliography. I felt as Sabrina and Sarah explained, that despite the massive workload we had in Southampton, there was a real exchange between class participants and their mentors. I also had the opportunity to examine in more depth the theme of my “projet tutoré” through a captivating class despite a more limited modules choice than expected.
How did you integrate and what were your feelings about it?
Antonin: Be sure, neither you nor most of the Erasmus students are willing to live this experience on their own. ESN offers you to subscribe to its organisation via the deliverance of a card, common to any of its members, wherever they are located. This makes you already part of a wide community of thousands.
Once you have made it to your new place, you realise immediately that you do belong to the Erasmus community of your exchange city. Indeed, just like every other Erasmus student in Southampton, Anaïs and I came from a different country, we were here for a limited period of time and shared the same motivations as our peers: speaking English and experiencing a new life. Sharing all these features accelerates and facilitates the process of bonding.
For my first days in Southampton I had booked a room in a tiny inn where I met 2 groups of Spanish students. I could tell they were around my age, not from here and probably just arrived in the city. I simply asked « Are you guys Erasmus Students as well ? » which entailed a pleasant conversation that ended with Facebook friend requests. You have nothing to loose, do not hesitate to engage conversation with strangers.
Then, when you find an accommodation it is the same. If you manage to get room in a hall, you will never have to worry about your social life. Those residences include many common rooms shared by dozens of international and Erasmus students. The second option is to get a private rented place, which you are very likely to share with other students. Most of the time, again, your roommates will be incoming students or at least mix of local and foreign students. Naturally, everyone brings together the people they already met, enabling you to make new acquaintances and to quickly become a regular member of a newly created Erasmus/international group. However, try your best at being independent from your crew.
The best way to keep meeting people is to go to the ESN student events. That it is not necessarily good news if you do not like clubbing. Basically, I was not fond of clubs myself, but I got used to it very quickly and had much fun. Knowing in advance that the experience would eventually represent a short and unique period of my life made easier to let myself go. Southampton ESN does not only provide night entertainment. Almost each week the organisation runs a day trip, which gives students the opportunity to go out, discover places outside the city and meet new people at the same time.
Sarah: After a while, I got used to my new life in Italy, and I liked it. Once you have tasted the Dolce vita, your heart belongs to Italy! I want to highlight this particularity of Italian lifestyle. Italy is a very welcoming and warm country, as everyone knows. But to experience it is fabulous.
One of the most striking things is the importance of bars in people’s lives. Italians do spend their time in cafés. They breakfast or take an espresso before going to work (which has become one of my favourite Italian habits). Bars offer standard and local menus, so they can also have lunch there. The most important hour of the day is at 6 p.m., aperitivo time: in every bar you will find a buffet full of food from pasta to pizza.
In Milan for example, there are two main central districts for Italian nightlife: Navigli (along the Naviglio river) and Brera (in the historical centre). For 10 euros, you get a cocktail of your choice, and the buffet is free. In Brescia, a smaller city, there are also two main districts: Carmine (a very cool and eclectic place) and Piazzale Arnaldo (trendier) and for just 5 euros you can get an Apericena (unlimited buffet). At any time of day, you can go out, and find street life, which is always a pleasant moment. This is the best way to meet people: after one or two months, you enter the bar saying hi to the bartenders, and you make yourself at home.
In the end, I had a group of both Italian and international friends. We became a « big multicultural family », which summarises well my thoughts about Erasmus. Many memories stand out but the best one is the feeling of belonging to the place. Organising dinners was the best way to share each other’s cultures, from food to music, while enjoying the Italian lifestyle. The only thing I wanted was to go back there. The positive side is that it motivated me to acquire more experience abroad to travel and discover the world.
Anais: After a week of joy and wonder, I dreadfully missed my friends and family. I witnessed during my first days in Southampton that Erasmus students, including me, tended to naturally talk to people coming from the same country or sharing the same language. The integration on British soil, I think, depends on several factors related to chance and to your will to merge. I perceived meeting local students as a hard task even though some were more likely to talk to Erasmus students because they had gone on a gap year abroad, or just because they were curious about my French and Colombian cultures. However, this does not mean that one cannot meet locals since Antonin, Sarah and Sabrina did succeed in responding to this challenge! Even though my list of British contacts did not get really longer, I had on the contrary no difficulty to meet Erasmus students. I joined the ESN as Sarah and Antonin and it allowed me to visit lovely surrounding towns, and make new friends. ESN Southampton additionally offers a « Buddy Scheme » which enables you to meet a local student who helps you finding your marks in your host city.
Antonin: Contrary to what Sarah wrote about Italy, socialising with locals in England is no picnic. Erasmus events are a great thing, but quickly show the limits of communitarianism.
To meet British people, the best thing to do is to go to the pub, one of the cornerstones of British culture. Kate Fox, a British sociologist, defines the pub time as a « structrured, temporary relaxation or suspension of normal social controls« . In other words, going to British people naturally in the street, the bus or the shops is not easy. The particularity of this drinking-place is that there is no waiter service, thus promoting sociability. When you are waiting for your turn to be served at the bar counter, it is usual to strike up conversation with strangers. To be honest, it will always be small talk, pleasant, but not really deep. When reading Watching the English, in which Kate Fox tries to define what « Englishness » is, you understand that British people see a clear demarcation between private and public spheres. In practical terms, I often talked with local people for more than 15 minutes without getting to know their names. Moreover, one does not only meet local students, but also local middle aged and even old people. Generally social distinctions disappear once inside the pub.
If you really want to get local friends, try to do it in accordance with your hobbies. The best thing to do is to join a society, just like Sabrina did. But if you do not want the university to be involved in your social life at all, you need to have neighbours sharing your hobbies. I have to admit that I was lucky because the house next to ours was occupied by 5 local music students. I spent so much time « jamming », and chilling with them that I was happy to consider them as my friends at the end of the experience. Somehow, they were the members of a society I had chosen to join. The fact that my roommates did not get that close to them, made me realise how sharing their interests was, in the first place, a considerable advantage to build up a friendship.
We all had different experiences but we all enjoyed the four months we got to spend in a European country. Wherever you go, Erasmus + programme will allow you to evolve and adapt in a multicultural environment. This, will be a huge plus on your curriculum if you are willing to work in an international context and more generally in your everyday life! After this great human moment you will be more independent and your thoughts about future will be much clearer. We recommend it wholeheartedly. So, what are you waiting for?